In Hamden, Murphy outlines new federal education law as ‘big change’

By:  Kate Ramunni
New Haven Register

HAMDEN >> This time Congress got it right with its new education act, Sen. Chris Murphy told local superintendents Friday at a forum at the New Haven Lawn Club.

Replacing the widely unpopular No Child Left Behind with a new federal Every Student Succeeds Act will allow states to have more control over their schools, Murphy, D-Conn., said.

“This is a big change in federal education policy,” Murphy said. “It gets Washington out of the business of telling local schools what to do. This hands the power back to the schools.”

Parents, students, teachers and administrators have advocated for such a change, Murphy said, expressing to him their dislike for the No Child Left Behind enacted during the Bush administration that relied heavily on standardized testing and sanctions for failing schools.

Under the new law, there’s no designated federal standards to meet, Murphy said.

“This is a major shift in power with the responsibility now on the state and local level,” he said. “I really think Connecticut has really been hamstrung by federal law which didn’t give the state as much wiggle room as it needed to try to turn around schools. So this bill really provides opportunities for the state.”

Under NCLB, the federal government controlled standards, imposed sanctions, and required remedies for underperforming schools. Those responsibilities will now be transferred to state and local municipalities, said Murphy, who as a member of the senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee helped draft the law.

“The old law set the standard for schools at the federal government. The new standards that schools will have to meet will be set at each state level,” he said. “The old law said that if you have a failing school, there are only four ways that you can turn it around. The new law leaves those interventions for troubled schools up to the state governments. The old law got really prescriptive about how you evaluated schools and teachers.”

Hamden Superintendent of Schools Jody Goeler said he believes it is a “step in the right direction,” but is concerned that states must maintain a continuity in terms of standards.

“One thing I wonder about is are we going to circle back to the time when Connecticut was significantly different than states like Ohio,” Goeler said. “It could be an unintended consequence. We live in a world where the pendulum moves from strong federal regulations to state autonomy. We could look for a middle.”

The new law doesn’t mean that states will have free reign, Murphy said. There will still be requirements that states keep track of certain areas, including schools that could be considered failing and the number of students that drop out of high school, Murphy said.

“It used to be that the federal government required you to track those populations and then told you how to turn those schools around,” Murphy said. “That’s not the law any longer. So I think it’s still important for the federal government to still require the states to track vulnerable populations and require specific interventions for the lowest 5 percent of schools, but I don’t think Washington should be telling states and schools how to intervene in these instances - that should up to the local jurisdictions.”

“I like the idea that a state has the opportunity to advance a system of accountability that is reasonable and doesn’t have sanctions,” Goeler said. “We need to continue the conversation and not lose site of the importance of having continuity.”

Unlike the NCLB law, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 and went into effect the same year, the ESSA will be implemented over time, Murphy said, with it not going into effect until the 2017-18 school year.

“There’s a long ramp-up period,” he said. “We learned a hard lesson from No Child Left Behind. We are going to give a long period of ramp up so that states and schools can feel comfortable with the new law. Frankly, this new law is all about less federal intervention, not more federal intervention, so there’s not a lot of adjustments here, but we are not going to make the same mistake that Washington made back in 2002.”

Transferring the authority from Washington to the states was the right thing to do, Murphy said, because educators know best what their students need in a school system.

“I think in the end, after a very long process, we got this bill right,” he said. “What we maintained was the basic expectations that states will hold schools accountable for good results.”

While some question whether the ESSA gives the states too much authority, it was clear that NCLB wasn’t effective, Murphy said, especially in Connecticut, where he termed it “a disaster.”

“Many are worried this is too big an evolution of power down to the states but I don’t think there was a lot of evidence that the old system was working,” he said.